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‘Major League’ Is Baseball

How Jake Taylor, Ricky Vaughn, and the rest of the fictional Cleveland Indians present the most accurate version of the sport to ever hit the big screen

Getty Images/Ellias Stein
Getty Images/Ellias Stein

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

It was 1988. The Cleveland Indians hadn’t come close to winning a pennant in 34 years. So when Major League director David S. Ward set out to make a movie about the team he’d grown up rooting for from his hometown of South Euclid, Ohio, he realized it would have to be a comedy for anyone to take the concept of the Indians being part of a playoff race seriously.

Yeah, Major League is absurd at times, and for some reason Jake Taylor (played by Tom Berenger) can just walk into any apartment at any time. (Several times throughout the movie, he just enters private residences uninvited, like some sort of antivampire.) But even with a few plot holes, it’s still one of the best baseball movies of all time. And despite Ward’s reasoning behind making it a comedy, Major League is also the most accurate baseball movie ever made. The Sandlot is a classic, but it’s told through the lens of fantastically distorted childhood memories. Field of Dreams is about a bunch of ghosts that came out of a cornfield. The Bad News Bears and Bull Durham are certainly in the conversation, but they don’t depict the sport at its highest level. Moneyball is amazing, but it’s told through a narrow lens; it just can’t match the scope of what Major League got so right.

‘Major League’ Captured the Spirit of Every Downtrodden Fan Base

One of the defining elements of fandom is hope. Every season ushers in a new opportunity: Maybe, just maybe, this could be the year.

This flicker of expectation exists at the beginning of every baseball season, but the 162-game schedule tends to iron out the surprises you get in other sports. So, there’s a unique kind of mistrust among the fans of hard-luck franchises.

Despite the length of the season, though, you’re still going to watch. You know it’s not going to work out because it never does, but some vague, reluctant obligation — or maybe just boredom — keeps you tuning in.

Anyone who’s lived through lean years knows the feeling, and Major League sets the tenor. The fans aren’t falling for the team’s attempts to create opening day excitement. The beat writers are settling in for another long slog covering a terrible team, and even the faithful radio play-by-play announcer knows that no one really cares. They’re all bound to this team, but they’re not exactly happy about it.

It Was Moneyball Before ‘Moneyball’

Granted, it has a slightly different tone than the Brad Pitt film, but Major League illustrated the Moneyball approach to building a winning roster almost a decade before Billy Beane’s revolutionary sabermetrics-based method took hold. It proposed that even if you’re stuck in a midsize market with limited resources, a shitty stadium, and ownership that doesn’t much care about winning, you can compete for a pennant with a little creativity.

Instead of spending big money on players with five tools, general manager Charlie Donovan, manager Lou Brown, and bench coach Pepper Leach went about finding players with one or two marginally special skills: Willie Mays Hayes and his ridiculous speed, Pedro Cerrano and his power against fastballs, Ricky Vaughn’s amazing velocity, Eddie Harris and his junk balls, and Taylor’s game-calling and trash-talking wizardry.

It Showed Baseball From Every Angle

In part, HBO’s The Wire was compelling because it delved into every perspective of crime in Baltimore, exploring the relationships between drug organizations, police, the judiciary, city leadership, unions, and everyone in between. Major League … is not The Wire. (Although Jimmy McNulty and Ricky Vaughn do share some things in common.) But Major League celebrates baseball from all perspectives. It examines the relationships between ownership and the front office, the front office and the coaching staff, and the coaching staff and the players.

Donovan has to put together a coaching staff and spring training roster while being actively sabotaged by the Indians’ new owner, Rachel Phelps, who wants to move the team; Brown has to go about cutting down the roster, then coaching up a bunch of players with obvious deficiencies, all while testing their boundaries and seeing what they’re made of. He uses the threat of push-ups to get Mays to hit the ball on the ground, brings Roger Dorn to heel by literally taking a piss on his contract, and figures out that Vaughn’s faulty eyes can’t see far enough for him to know where to throw his fastball.

The movie also explores the dynamics between players, whose perspectives vary greatly: You’ve got the vets mailing it in on their big contract, the over-the-hill former stars trying for one last shot at a ring, the midlevel players just looking to keep their job, and the rookies trying to break out. These players come from different backgrounds, cultures, and creeds. Maybe they even practice voodoo:

Taylor, the veteran catcher and team glue guy, is ostensibly the main character, but Major League is really more of an ensemble cast. Ward supposedly cut out Taylor’s wedding scene from the ending to drive this point home. The movie is about the team — the off-field stuff the players go through; the grind of being on the road in dumpy planes, buses, and hotels; what it’s like to deal with fans and the media; and how difficult it is to deal with the pressure of performing on the highest stage. It captures the anxious pregame tension, the nerve-racking calm before the storm: players fidgeting at their lockers, getting lost in their thoughts as they stave off the creeping self-doubts. The entire closing scene, which takes place during the Indians’ one-game playoff with the Yankees, reproduces the internal battle athletes go through in the biggest moments of their career.

It’s Not Too Serious About Baseball

No, a hitter, third-base coach, manager, and runner on second base probably couldn’t have a long, wordless discussion about a zany idea for a bunt hit-and-run. But Major League gets baseball right when it comes to a lot of the eccentricities and nuances of America’s national pastime. Harris bends the rules with little tricks of the trade (using Vagisil, Crisco, and snot to load up his curveball). Cerrano’s (and later Harris’s) belief in the powers of Jobu do a great job of illustrating the tradition of extreme superstition in baseball. (The real-life Cleveland Indians offered a raw chicken to Jobu just this week). There’s hazing. There are fights with teammates, umps, other teams, and even the manager.

The examples are often over the top, but still feel strangely authentic. Much like how Veep portrays a more realistic version of Washington, D.C., than House of Cards does, Major League reminds us that baseball is a game that many people care about — but most of those people are huge goofballs. Wearing stretch pants with a belt and swinging a piece of wood for a living is absurd in some way, so why wouldn’t a movie about baseball be just as ridiculous?

This makes the depiction of the players themselves feel genuine, too. Whether they’re in the major leagues, or just playing softball on Friday nights, a good amount of players still respect and uphold one of the most important, time-honored traditions of the sport: carte blanche to be a disgusting dirtbag.

Major League’s de facto villains are the Yankees (as they should be). Their leader? AL Triple Crown winner and the awesomely gross Clu Haywood, whose favorite pastime, apart from hitting dingers, is to call rookies Hayes and Vaughn “meat” whenever he gets the chance. Clu is played by former real-life major leaguer Peter Vuckovich, an 11-year veteran pitcher, most notably for the Brewers. The “how’s your wife and my kids?” line was improvised by Vuckovich, who was told by Ward to say something that a big leaguer might say in that situation. Baseball players are the best.

It Nails the Importance of the Radio Play-by-Play Announcer

Major League’s de facto narrator is Harry Doyle, played by the real-life Hall of Fame Brewers radio announcer Bob Uecker. The whiskey-swilling play-by-play announcer ties everything in the movie together, waffling between weary dejection and relentless positivity during the most beautifully euphemism-laden narration of baseball you’ll ever hear.

Uecker’s “juuuuuust a bit outside” call was also an off-script improvisation — and probably became the most ubiquitous line from the movie — but it just scratches the surface of the importance of the radio play-by-play caller to a franchise’s fans. Baseball play-by-play guys have to be storytellers, and they have to be bullshitters. It’s not the fast-paced world of basketball or football with a few fleeting breaks in the action; it’s three hours of yarn-spinning punctuated by a couple of moments of exhilaration. Whether it’s Harry Caray, Vin Scully, Dave Niehaus, or any number of legendary broadcasters, the game’s biggest moments — a team’s most legendary plays — are inextricably linked to their calls. Major League gets this just right with Uecker as the voice of the Tribe.

It Recreates the In-Game Experience

If you’re lucky, you’ve had the chance to experience a crucial postseason game for your team. The scenes from Cleveland’s one-game playoff with the Yankees capture the raw emotion of that type of crowd. Most famously: Ricky Vaughn’s slow, epic walk to the mound to the chorus of “Wild Thing.” Although it’s a comedy, Major League — with the help of 27,000 extras filling the stands — still manages to create that feeling of electricity in the stadium:

It Reminds Us That Sometimes a Division Title Is Enough

The ending of the movie is a freeze-frame of the players celebrating their glorious one-game playoff win, giving them the city’s first the AL East title in decades. Left unclear is whether or not they’d go on to win the ALCS or the World Series — because who cares? It doesn’t matter what happened next.

Only one team wins a championship each year, and we’re only on this rock for a limited amount of time; you’ve got to take your glory where you can.

As a lifelong Mariners fan, I saw my team recreate the fictional Indians’ late-season pennant run just a few years after Major League was released. The 1995 season didn’t end in a World Series for the Mariners, but it will nonetheless go down in history for the team, which still hasn’t won it all. The Mariners’ magical “refuse to lose” hot streak erased the then-California Angels’ 13-game divisional lead , setting up a one-game playoff with the Angels for the AL West division title. After winning that, the Mariners faced the Yankees in the divisional round, and after falling being in the series 2–0, they rallied to force a decisive Game 5 showdown. It went to 11 innings, and then:

The play has a name: the ’95 Slide. Edgar Martinez’s double is burned into the collective memories of every Mariners fan alive. The image of Ken Griffey Jr. on the bottom of a dogpile is iconic. Niehaus’s call of the play is legendary, and it didn’t matter what happened after that.

But if you have to know, the Mariners went on to the ALCS, and they lost. To whom? The Indians.